Van life” brings a number of connotations to mind. A bohemian-style way of living; tricked-out Mercedes Sprinters, some with more comfort than four walls and a roof; jealousy-inducing pictures from the open road; and similar nostalgic imagery.

Adoption of the lifestyle has increased rapidly since Covid-19 across the U.S. From 2020 to 2022, the number of those living in their vans climbed from 1.9 million to 3.1 million, according to statista.com.

In the Truckee/Tahoe region in particular, vehicle-living can be a much less expensive alternative to renting or buying in this housing crisis and the median home price of $1.3 million.

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But alas, it’s not always glitz and glam.

Cathie Foley, program director for North Tahoe-Truckee Homeless Services, described three categories her nonprofit is aware of around those living in their cars: those choosing to do so (van lifers tend to be in this category); those who’ve lost housing and don’t have another option; and those who have a safe space to consistently park and might not need NTTHS resources.

Nate Graham falls into the first category. He’s lived in the Tahoe area for 7 years now, 5 of which have been spent in his van.

“I was overpaying way too much money for apartments that were nowhere near worth it, and it seemed like a waste of money and energy,” he said. “I converted a box truck myself. It took six months, three months full time … Ultimately, I’m just trying to save up to buy a house, whether it’s here or somewhere else, but it seems impossible if I am paying rent at the same time.”

He currently works as a bartender in downtown Truckee and parks at a friend’s during major winter storms.

NTTHS shared an example of the second demographic — those who live in their vehicles due to loss of housing — in its most recent annual report: Tim, a 48-year-old who’s lived in the region for a decade. He lost his housing during Covid-19 after his job in the service industry disappeared and he couldn’t pay rent. When weather is especially cold, Tim utilizes NTTHS’s Emergency Warming Center.

From November 2022 to April 2023, the Emergency Warming Center, currently located at 10075 Levon Ave. in Truckee, saw a 640% increase in overnight stays from previous years.

Nick Pestalozzi was a variation of the third category. From mid-August until November 2022, he lived in his mid-sized Camry. He’d just moved from Arizona and knew he didn’t have enough money to afford rent. During the two and a half months living in his car, he worked at New Moon Natural Foods in Truckee, saving up.

“It took me maybe a week to get used to sleeping in the back, but I actually ended up being very comfortable and sleeping pretty good,” Pestalozzi said. “I’d always wake up by 6 or 5 [in the morning].” In the middle of the night, he’d often be startled by passing trains.

“I was lucky that I was able to move [into a house] by wintertime,” he added.

Alongside other efforts to provide affordable housing across North Tahoe/Truckee, the most recent step took place at the end of February: the adoption of the Tahoe Area Basin Plan amendments by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency Governing Board. Included in the amendments is a policy allowing Placer County staff to consider long-term parking options for local workers living in their vehicles.

“It would be a good temporary solution until there’s other forms of housing available,” Foley said of the policy. “But the places people park need to have toilets, they need to have showers, they need to have access to trash, [and] access to those very basic necessities in order for it to be considered humane.”

A safe, legal space

Such spots are fairly common, especially in California. They’re known as Safe Parking programs and allow those living in their vehicles a legal place to park, often with resources such as restrooms and showers.

There’s even one in Telluride, Colorado, a sister mountain town to Truckee. In 2021, Telluride implemented a Temporary Winter Community Housing Program, allowing nine approved mobile tenants to reside in the town parking lot for the winter season. The program has reached its cap every year since.

The Truckee/North Tahoe region does not currently have such programs implemented, though efforts have been made in the recent past. Beginning in 2021, Palisades Tahoe partnered with the U.S. Forest Service to convert a portion of Granite Flat Campground into space for resort employees to live in their vans and RVs for the winter, for $250 a month.

“For the two winters we had the campground and had 22 usable sites, and never had more than 10 tenants, and at times it was less than that,” shared Patrick Lacey, PR manager for Palisades, in an email. “We partnered with the USFS to explore the campground as an ‘off the grid’ housing option for employees who had expressed interest in such a set up. However, ultimately, we did not see occupancy numbers that supported the ongoing cost of the permit fee.”

“Van life is fun and cool and saves money and it’s flashy on Instagram and stuff, but it will bring up a lot for you to work through when it comes to not having roots somewhere.” 

~ Katie J., manifestation coach and barista who lived in her van for two summers

The annual permit fee with Palisades was $23,600, following a USFS national fee formula, “based on a combination of land value in Placer County and facility replacement or improvement fees,” explained Tahoe National Forest public affairs officer Lauren Faulkenberry. “The fee is subject to offset, up to 100%, if the permittee performs government maintenance.” Palisades’s permit fee was fully offset thanks to such improvements as picnic tables, fire rings, and bear boxes.

For Placer to create an official Safe Parking program, it would start with supervisor direction and quite a bit of research and planning, said Emily Setzer, principal planner with the county.

Likely, the program would be application-based. “[People would] probably have to come in and fill out a form, maybe prove that they were a local worker,” Setzer said. “We would have to coordinate with our Department of Public Works and sheriff’s office, and probably Health and Human Services as well — really coordinate with all of our county departments and create a program with some standards in place so that we could prevent problems like trash and refuse and human waste and things like that.”

Safety for those in the vehicles is another aspect to consider, she added, referencing an incident in 2008 when three young women slept in a car they left running for warmth in a resort parking lot overnight, and died of carbon monoxide poisoning when snow from a heavy storm blocked the vehicle’s tailpipe.

Without policies like the recently adopted TBAP one in place, Setzer said, “You risk some of those things happening.”

Behind the scenes of vehicle-living

Regardless of how one ends up living in their vehicle, it’s a learned lifestyle.

“There was no roadmap for this,” Graham said. “If you want it, you’ll figure it out and if you don’t, well, then that’s your call as well.”

One of the most critical and consistent pieces is finding a place to park. Graham said knowledge of quality parking spots is earned. “If we’re friends, absolutely,” he said, of when he shares his favorites. “If I don’t know you, then absolutely not; I’m gonna tell you to park at Safeway [which is not permissible]. A lot of the good spots have been taken or eliminated for various reasons — a lot of those being overuse or disrespect, so, no, I’m not gonna tell everyone where I park.”

Since the pandemic, Graham has noticed a significant decrease in overnight parking options locally due to the rise in visitors. “You used to be able to park all along Donner Lake,” he said. “Now there’s no parking overnight. You used to be able to park all along West River [Street] … [until] boulders [blocked access]. You used to be able to park right on the river there. A lot of the spots have shut down because people are not respectful or there’s just too many or whatever the reason.”

Katie J. lived in her van during the summers of 2021 and 2022 by choice. During that time, she never stayed parked for more than 2 days in one spot unless she was on the private property of someone she knew. But there were a variety of places around Truckee within a 5-mile radius where she could park.

CAMPING IN A CAMRY: When he first moved to Truckee, Nick Pestalozzi lived out of his Camry for 2-and-a-half months. He would wake up to the trains passing by at night and be up for the day between 5 and 6 each morning. Courtesy photo

Parking rules vary between the jurisdictions in our coverage area. For example, the Town of Truckee municipal code states that in general, drivers can park outside the public right-of-way on “any street or alley” up  to “a consecutive period of seventy-two (72) hours” (10.13.130).

“I never looked up any codes,” Katie J. said. “I never looked up any laws. There are places that I parked right next to a sign that said no parking overnight and never had any problems … I would stay in a lot of places [where] I looked like an industrial vehicle, so I could get away with more things than someone who is clearly camping in their van.”

Pestalozzi was an anomaly: He parked in the same spot in Glenshire for his entire 2 and a half months of car-living and was never bothered.

Through his 5 years of van life, Graham has been contacted by police four to six times, he estimates. He said they were always friendly, and only approached him because someone else had reported him.

“I live in a big, very obvious vehicle,” he said. “They know I live here; they know I work in town. I’ve talked to multiple police and they’re like, we don’t wanna mess with locals. That’s not why we’re here. We’re not here to police locals. We’re here to keep the community safe and whatever.”

Katie J. echoed him: “The town knows there’s a housing crisis … they know that we are in the grocery stores. They know who we are. I think there is this unspoken or like unwritten law, if you will, in van life.”

Both Katie J. and Graham acknowledged that if they had spread outside of their vehicles — with tables, chairs, trash, etc. — they likely would’ve had many more conversations with police.

The places people park need to have toilets, they need to have showers, they need to have access to trash, [and] access to those very basic necessities in order for it to be considered humane.”

~ Cathie Foley, program director for North Tahoe-Truckee Homeless Services

Other learned experiences included purchasing local gym memberships for shower and/or bathroom access (Katie J. had a camping toilet; Graham, a real toilet with a bidet; Pestalozzi, nothing). Pestalozzi also utilized park restrooms for shaving.

As a staffer at New Moon Natural Foods, Pestalozzi was in close proximity to food options and tried to never keep anything edible in his car overnight. Graham has an apartment-sized fridge, oven, and stove in his van.

For Katie J., food was the one thing most difficult to master while living in her van. “I feel like I didn’t really find a flow that really felt good to me,” she said. “It would’ve been better to have a fridge.”

Regarding the day-to-day, the need for resources was or is a cycle.

“Day to day stuff, I’m fully self-contained, so propane, water — I have to fill propane once every 6 weeks, water probably closer to 3 to 4,” Graham said. “In the winter, water’s at my friend’s house; summer, there’s plenty of spots to fill around town.”

The size of Truckee helped keep Katie J.’s expenses low. “I rarely had to fill up my tank,” she said. “And by the time I needed to do that, I would just go to Reno and run all my errands at once. The gas was expensive. To fill up my tank, which was an extended tank … when gas prices got really high for a second, it would be like $150 to fill my tank. Granted, that would take you about 500 miles.” She also spent a lot of time walking.

Come winter, Katie J. headed to a warmer climate or scored a ski lease. Without a heater, her van wasn’t conducive for colder weather. “The van wasn’t complete,” she said. “It was not fit for living outside of the summer months. You got May, June, July, August, September, maybe into October, depending on how comfortable you are with the cold and whether or not you have a dog.”

Growing roots

All three vehicle-dwellers recognize the long-term benefits of establishing roots, especially in the Truckee/North Tahoe region. Pestalozzi and Katie J. currently pay rent for a house and apartment, respectively.

“I like the community up here,” Pestalozzi said. In addition to working at New Moon he drives for TART Connect. “I like the small mountain-town feel. I love snow and I love the lakes. My jobs, too, are great. I would say out of all the jobs I’ve ever worked, [these are] some of the best.”

Katie J., who works as a manifestation coach and at a local coffee shop, spoke about the mental legwork she had to work through in order to reach a sense of belonging in the community.

“Van life is fun and cool and saves money and it’s flashy on Instagram and stuff,” Katie J. said, “but it will bring up a lot for you to work through when it comes to not having roots somewhere … I’m a black woman and I’m already rare in Truckee as is, so to be also living in a van, I had so much stuff around that, so much shadow work to do around the limiting beliefs and feeling like I’m not supposed to be here, and I shouldn’t be parking here and I’m gonna get in trouble.”

Graham continues to work toward putting down roots. He mentioned missing having a garage or shop for projects. He misses having a bathtub, too. “There’s definitely a lot of great things about having a real home,” he said.

At the same time, he recognizes what living in his van allows him to do: “I regularly wake up to million-dollar views I couldn’t afford. Waking up on the summit is fantastic. Waking up on the lakes is great. Waking up by the river [or] Prosser — there’s so many beautiful places where you can enjoy a nice morning coffee [where] I would never be able to afford.”

Editor’s note: Pestalozzi currently lives with Moonshine Ink publisher Mayumi Peacock.


Truckee Police Department Recommends Considerations for Overnight Parking

Choose Safe Locations

• Park in well-lit, populated areas.

• Avoid isolated locations to reduce security risks.

Secure Your Vehicle

• Lock all doors and windows to prevent unauthorized access.

• Keep valuables out of sight to deter break-ins.

Proper Ventilation

• Sleeping in your vehicle during heavy snowfall can be dangerous and increase your chances of getting carbon monoxide poisoning.

• Do not fall asleep with your vehicle running; excessive snow buildup will trap your vehicle’s exhaust fumes underneath and inside your vehicle. 

• Crack a window for fresh air circulation and to prevent condensation.

• Avoid running the engine for extended periods to reduce carbon monoxide risk.

Emergency Preparedness

• Have an emergency kit with essentials like first aid, water, and non-perishable food.

• Carry a flashlight, blankets, and a charged phone for communication.

Prioritize safety and vigilance while sleeping in your car, especially in unfamiliar or challenging environments.

Author

  • Alex Hoeft

    Alex Hoeft joined Moonshine staff in May 2019, happy to return to the world of journalism after a few years in community outreach. She has both her bachelor's and Master's in journalism, from Brigham Young University and University of Nevada, Reno, respectively. When she's not journalism-ing, she's wrangling her toddler or reading a book — or doing both at the same time.

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